Birmingham-area sixth grader among the first in the country to pilot new LUCI technology

Betsy Pringle recently had her power wheelchair fitted with a high-tech hardware and software platform to provide stability, security and connectivity.

Videography: Tyler Greer and Laura Gasque

Earlier this month, a pediatric patient at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Spain Rehabilitation Center became one of the first people in the world to receive a new, “smart” safety system on her power wheelchair.

Eleven-year-old Betsy Pringle of Birmingham is the newest and one of the youngest users of LUCI — a first-of-its-kind product that mounts to a power wheelchair. LUCI combines radar, sensor and camera data to allow the chair to “see” its environment. The results are unprecedented safety features like collision avoidance and drop-off protection. 

“This is very exciting,” Betsy said. “Now, there’s no risk of me hitting my puppy, my siblings or my walls — or going off any curbs.” 

Those are indeed among the goals of LUCI, which adds the smart technology to existing power wheelchairs to give the users stability, security and connectivity in the form of collision avoidance, drop-off and tip-over protection, cloud-based communication and alerts, an enhanced mobility platform, and voice-activated compatibilities.  

“I am thrilled for Betsy,” said Anne Pringle, Betsy’s mother. “I think LUCI is going to make her more independent because of the safety features that come with it. It will enable her to roam the neighborhood more safely and be able to explore and live her best without so many restrictions. She goes out and moves around already. She’s out playing in the neighborhood like all of the other kids are, but this will give us peace of mind that if something happens with the chair it will alert me, and I will know that she needs help. But it will also prevent accidents with the chair, which is nice.”LUCI3Photography: Tyler Greer

Meeting Betsy

Cathy Carver, a physical therapist in the Wheelchair Clinic at UAB’s Spain Rehabilitation Center, has a popular Birmingham community program called Come Roll With Me. The program promotes awareness of and respect for the needs of wheelchair users by actively discussing accessibility, exploring environments and problem-solving through activities in a wheelchair firsthand.

READ MORE: Through Come Roll With Me, kids experience what life is like in a wheelchair

It was at a Come Roll With Me event that Betsy and Carver met. Betsy came to the event to help show other able-bodied kids how to interact with kids with disabilities. Carver stayed in touch with the family, and when it was time for Betsy to get a new wheelchair, she came to Spain Rehabilitation to get fitted.

Carver learned about the LUCI technology earlier in the year and learned that the company was looking for people to pilot it as they prepare to bring it to the public. She immediately thought of Betsy.

“She’s in school, an upcoming sixth grader, and she’s very active with her family,” Carver said. “Who better to give feedback on how this device can help than her? We asked her to be a part of a pilot, a case study, that we’re going to try to do in partnership with other therapists around the country. We hope to get some feedback on some of the intricacies of how people use power wheelchairs, and what needs to change about the development of power wheelchairs so they are safer, easier to use and can go more places.”

LUCI5Photography: Tyler Greer Helping others

Betsy is one of fewer than 10 active users of LUCI, which launched earlier this summer and will be publicly available in the fall.  

The company’s CEO, Nashville songwriter Barry Dean, quietly stepped away from his music career to focus full time on helping his daughter Katherine, 19, who has cerebral palsy and has used a power wheelchair almost her whole life.

When Dean discovered that no one was using modern technology to make wheelchairs safer, he began working with his brother, Jered, a Denver-based product development engineer, to create one. 

Betsy, Anne and the Pringle family will report back to UAB and LUCI on the benefits and challenges the technology presents over the next few months in an effort to help fine-tune it before its fall release. Betsy said it is “very cool and very exciting” to have the opportunity to test the technology in an effort to help other power wheelchair users.  

Anne believes the technology has a chance to help others prevent power wheelchair injuries, a reality that many users face. In fact, in 2003 when the last comprehensive study was published on wheelchair related injuries treated in U.S. emergency departments, more than 100,000 wheelchair-related injuries were treated in a year’s time. Tips and falls accounted for 65-80 percent of injuries across all age groups of wheelchair users. If taking part in a pilot study for new technology can make a difference, the Pringles say they are all for it.  

“Betsy is my first born and most cautious, rule-following child,” Anne said. “I don’t worry as much with her as I might other children who are in similar situations. I hear about accidents all of the time — of people I know whose children have been in an accident with a power chair, an accident that could have been prevented with something like LUCI. I’m thrilled we can be a part of that and help keep kids safe, let them explore and be independent and have fun. Just be kids.”